The priest had just closed the volume by Thomas à Kempis on the bookmark and put away what was left of the bottle of wine when the telephone rang. He answered it reluctantly and recognized Mrs. Corelli’s voice on the line, begging him to hurry and saying that the doctor was already on his way. Rosa Corelli was a widow in her late 80’s, who was driven to Mass every Sunday by her grandson, a married man in his 40’s who came for her when the service was over; in the past six months she had suffered a series of attacks. The priest glanced at the clock that was beside the phone. It said nearly 11, and he felt sleepy and thickheaded. He promised Mrs. Corelli that he would come as quickly as he could, and hung up the receiver.
In the bedroom he put on his collar and shoes, his fingers working clumsily against the buttons and laces. The snowstorm had caused him to cancel a trip out of town, and for the first time in weeks he had been able to sit alone in the rectory and read, making notes for the book he was writing, without interruption. He was surprised to discover how late it was; also how much of the wine was gone. Wine was Father Hillary’s sole luxury, in which he indulged himself regularly except during Lent. He had acquired a palate when he was studying in Paris at the Sorbonne, learning to discriminate among wines at the same time that he was mastering Augustine and Aquinas. His rule was to restrict himself to two glasses a night at supper, but this evening he had eaten from a tray table while reading The Imitation of Christ in his big armchair, so engrossed that he must have neglected to keep count of the glasses he had poured from the magnum bottle beside him. He finished finally with the shoes and collar and went to the vestibule for his coat, hat, and boots.
The glass panes inset in the outer door were frosted in patterns like cathedral windows where the heat from the forced-air system came up through the grate in the floor. The storm had eased away in great slow wheels to the east, leaving behind it a lake of bitter cold. Father Hillary opened the door and felt the night, like an entire world, rise up against him; the only sound was the creak of snow beneath the tires of a slowly passing vehicle. Above the almost lightless town, the stars shone with a brilliant intensity they had lacked in Princeton, New Jersey, and in France, where they had been obscured by a mixture of smoke and fog in pastel colors. His car was parked outside the garage with an extension cord running from under the hood to the electrical outlet just inside the garage door, which had jammed in its tracks in a halfway position; one of his parishioners had promised to come and repair it in the morning. He went to the car through the dry light snow that lifted in clouds about his boots, aware of the terrible cold against his heated cheeks. Once he set a foot down wrong, but managed to regain his balance without breaking stride in the snow.
The priest switched on the ignition and in the shine of the headlights unplugged the extension cord from the block heater. Then he got in behind the wheel again and drove across the wide snowy parking area to the street, where he continued for a couple of blocks before making a left turn toward the center of town. The engine had no warmth yet for the heater to pump; Father Hillary’s breath fogged the windows and the lenses of the eyeglasses he needed to drive with. Ahead, the street dropped steeply down from one shelf of bungalows to the next, a slope of pale slippery ice descending to the hot colored lights of the bars at the heart of the downtown business district. The priest, though he was in a hurry, did not dare to drive very fast. When he reached the intersection at the foot of the hill, the light-box said DON’T WALK but the traffic-light above it remained green. The priest tapped the accelerator and depressed the signal lever for a left turn.
He drove with his left eye, the lens in front of the right one having become fogged suddenly. Father Hillary removed the glasses hastily, rubbed them on the lapel of his coat, and was attempting to return them to the bridge of his nose when an earpiece caught somewhere and they were snatched from his hand. They fell at his feet under the pedals and he lunged for them with the one hand while keeping the other on the wheel. The hand groped, and as he straightened up in the seat he saw through the frosty blur a red round light overhead. He jammed his foot on the brake, and felt an impact like a dull blow to the head. By the time he had the door open and stepped out onto the ice-covered street, a patrol car had arrived and children were piling out from the big station wagon, built like a truck, that had hit him. His own car had been spun completely around on the ice, so that it now faced uphill in the direction from which he had come. The priest could not believe that so many children had been riding in one vehicle. When all of them were out of it, they began to whoop and yell and stamp around in the street like red Indians, shouting, “Mommy’s had an accident! Mommy’s had an accident!”
Father Hillary went over to them, asking, “Are all of you children all right?” but they paid liim no attention, the driver of the station wagon, a fat young woman in a quilted coat, stood talking to the police officer; as the priest turned toward them, he was approached by a second officer who wanted to know, “Are you hurt, Father?” He was a heavyset young man with a thin blond mustache whom the priest recognized as one of his more irregular parishioners. “I’m fine,” Father Hillary told him. “Are yon certain that none of the children is injured?”
The officer looked over his shoulder at the children, who went on stamping in circles and yelling while their mother continued to speak with the other policeman. “They’d damn sure be injured if they was my kids,” he said. “Their mom says she’s okay too. How about yourself. Father? Maybe you’d like a ride up to the hospital and kind of have yourself checked out?”
Something in his voice made the priest suddenly alert to what he was saying. The young man seemed uncertain of himself, a little hesitant. Beyond the uniformed figure, a constellation of blinking lights swam disconcertingly in a blur of colors. “My glasses,” Father Hillary said, passing a hand downward over his face. “I left my eyeglasses in the car.”
Instantly, the wide simple face of the policeman cleared, as though the weight of centuries had been lifted from him. “Your glasses! You bet. Either! You just stand right here where you’re at now, while I go and find them for you.”
The priest passed his hand again across his face, from left to right this time. A pain had started behind his temple and he felt light-headed and disoriented, as if he were awakening from a dream to some urgent obligation he found that he could not remember. “On the floor somewhere, underneath the wheel,” he told the officer in a voice that sounded to him to have become detached from his body. “Thank you very much.” His exploring fingers had discovered a raised place just in front of his right ear.
It took the young police officer, whose name Father Hillary managed finally to recall was Tymanski, less than a minute to find the missing spectacles. The right lens was badly cracked, but the priest was able to fill out the form Patrolman Tymanski gave him, and to read the one he exchanged it with the fat woman for. Her insurance company was located in Salt Lake City and the priest did not recognize the name she had written down, although her face was distantly familiar to him. Certainly she was not a member of his parish.
While the first officer measured distances with a steel tape. Patrolman Tymanski invited the priest and the woman in turn to sit with him in the squad car while he questioned them about the accident. Before, the woman, acting sullen, had seemed to avoid Father Hillary’s eye, but now that she was speaking with Tymanski her voice became excited, and once the priest saw her gesture strongly in his direction as he sat waiting inside his own automobile. He was slightly nauseous, and the disoriented feeling had been displaced by a growing sense that something crucial was happening that he had momentarily forgotten but that he needed to be in touch with immediately. When Tymanski was through talking to the woman, he got out of his car and slowly walked over to the priest’s. His face had a strange, twisted expression, as if one side of it were engaged in a critical struggle with the other side, and for a moment it seemed to Father Hillary that he was unable to speak. Then the face became reconciled with itself, growing suddenly smooth and featureless as a cheese as Patrolman Tymanski reached to touch the priest very gently on his right temple. “You are bleeding, Father,” he said. “I will take you to the hospital in mv car. The ambulance is on another call.”
The priest startled at the touch as if he had received an electric shock. “Oh, the good Lord!” he cried. “Rosa Corelli has just had another seizure. I was on my way to her house when this happened. Will you please drive me there as fast as you can? The Lord willing, we won’t be too late.”
When they arrived at Rosa Corelli’s house two minutes later, the ambulance was already drawing away from in front of the small fenced yard having just been dismissed by Doctor White, who stood in the open door with the recessed light at his back. The doctor, looking slightly disheveled, had on a faded blue parka worn shiny with age over a heavy sweater and held a knitted ski cap in his hand. His scant yellow hair was combed over a round red head and the thick lenses of his steel-rimmed glasses magnified the bloodshot whites of his eyes, which were merry and preternaturally bright. He was placing a wafer of breathmint in his mouth as the priest and the officer hurriedly approached him. “Take it easy, gentlemen,” he said, “there’s no point in hurrying now.”
He stood aside for them to pass and shut the door behind himself when they were inside. “She had a little bit of a problem with the dosage I gave her, and panicked,” Doctor White said. “She’s feeling all right now. Go on in and talk to her, Father, but try and make it quick. I fixed her to where she ought to be asleep in fifteen or twenty minutes.”
The priest crossed the parlor among the marble-topped tables, anti-macassared chairs, and breakfronts crowded with porcelain and glass into the bedroom where the old woman lay on a high-standing oak bedstead under a quilted comforter. Her gray hair on the pillow appeared freshly set and her nightgown had been tied carefully at the throat with a piece of blue ribbon. Over the gown she wore a bed-jacket that maintained her head in a forward position, against the pillow, the black eyes open wide in a gray, eager face. Prom the glass half-filled with water on the bedside table and the firmness of the wrinkled cheeks. Father Hillary saw that both sets of false teeth had been set securely in place. One hand lay on top of the comforter and held a rosary. “Not yet. Father.” Although the voice was strong enough, it seemed to the priest that it was the eyes, not the mouth, that actually spoke.
“No. Not yet, Rosa. But I’m going to anoint you all the same.”
“Father, your head. You’re bleeding.”
“I had a small accident on my way over. No one was hurt, but that’s why I was so slow in getting here.”
The eyes closed while he touched her forehead and hands with the oil and recited the prayer for the sick. When he had finished, they opened again and resumed their steady gaze. “No one anointed Our Lord when He was dying,” Rosa Corelli said.
“But He died innocent of sin. There was no need.”
“He wouldn’t drink the vinegar and water they offered Him.”
“Because He was looking forward to drinking the new wine with His disciples in Heaven.”
“Father,” the old woman said, “there is a bottle of wine down there under the bed. Would you give me a little of it to drink before you go?”
The priest looked and saw the glint of green glass beneath the edge of the quilt. “Is that wise after you’ve taken your medicine, Rosa? Maybe I should ask the doctor first.”
“Doctors don’t know everything,” Rosa Corelli said sharply. “Rinse this glass here, and take another for yourself from the bathroom.”
Father Hillary carried the glass into the bathroom and washed it under the hot-water tap. When he returned to the bedroom, Mrs. Corelli had slid the bottle clear of the bedskirts and propped the pillow higher against the headboard. He bent for the bottle, poured a small amount of the wine, and gave her the glass to drink from. “Where is your glass. Father?” the old woman asked.
“Oh, nothing for me, thank you,” the priest answered quickly. The odor of the wine affected his stomach to the point where he was afraid he might need to return to the bathroom. He set the bottle on the floor again where he could not see it and concentrated on putting the idea of wine out of his mind. “When I was a girl in Italy,” Rosa Corelli said drowsily, “nobody ever drank water, it made you sick, only wine. . . . Why don’t the Protestants understand wine. Father?”
Father Hillary took the empty glass from her hand and replaced it on the table beside the bed. Then he helped her to resettle the pillow on the mattress and drew the comforter up to her chin. Already her breathing was becoming more regular as she slid toward her littler reward. The priest turned out the light and went back to the parlor, where Doctor White sat waiting in one of the overstuffed armchairs. He looked redder in the face than ever—from being overheated inside the heavy parka, the priest thought. “She’s asleep now,” he said. “Her grandson will be home from Salt Lake tomorrow afternoon. I’ll look in on her in the morning to see if she needs anything.”
The doctor nodded as he rose heavily from the chair. He took the woolen cap from the pocket of his coat and pulled it over his skull until the edge of it reached the tops of his ears and his yellow eyebrows. “She should do fine with the new medication now,” he said. “Thank God, it wasn’t serious. This time of the evening, a man isn’t exactly at his professional best. ‘No man knoweth the day or the hour’—isn’t that how it goes, Father?”
He held the door wide in a broad gesture of professional courtesy, and the two men walked side by side under the penetrating stars to the doctor’s car.
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